Sonoma State University’s new President Judy K. Sakaki charted a fresh course of leadership Monday, pledging collaboration and teamwork during her first formal address before students and faculty.
SSU’s annual convocation is usually held in the smaller Evert B. Person Theater. But excitement for Sakaki, the nation’s first Japanese-American woman to head a four-year college, was so high the event was moved to the larger Weill Hall, the legacy of her predecessor Ruben Armiñana. Nearly half the 1,400 seats were filled.
The crowd included a large contingent of students, some of whom said they had never attended a convocation and some of whom expressed high hopes for Sakaki, who has pledged a more student-focused administration.
“We will be a collaborative, team-oriented university,” Sakaki told the crowd. “We will all be focused on our students’ success and academic excellence. We are fostering and modeling a respectful community on campus, respectful and celebratory of differences, a community that is fair and open and transparent with integrity.”
The new campus chief has already become a familiar figure on campus, strolling the grounds and stopping to meet and greet students and pose for their selfies. On Sunday, she attended the Big Nite Carnival and mingled with the families of 3,000 students moving into campus housing. And at a pre-convocation reception, she worked the room, walking up to people with a broad smile and extending her hand.
“It’s nice to see Dr. Sakaki going out and doing things for students. I’m super pumped,” said Emily Milesi, a 20-year-old pre-med student.
Faculty Senate Chair Ben Ford, a professor of mathematics, said this was the largest turnout he had seen for a convocation in his 18 years at SSU.
The 62-year-old Sakaki is herself a product of the California State University system, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University East Bay, as well as a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley. She generated a foot-stomping, standing ovation with whoops and whistles before she even started to speak.
“I want to listen and learn and benefit from your thoughts and experiences. Leadership for me is a collaborative process,” she told the gathering. Then she laid out an agenda that emphasized inclusion and outreach throughout the campus and in the community, including a focus on Latino students, who represent more than 53 percent of all K-12 students in California but are underrepresented on college campuses.
“There are children of farmworkers in our region who could benefit from continuing their education at Sonoma State. We need to think about helping a broader range of students to consider coming to our campus,” said Sakaki, who represents the first generation in her family to attend college.
She also emphasized the power of mentoring.
“We are a family of about 1,500 faculty and staff,” she said. “If each one of us committed to mentor, to look out for, to take a special interest in just one prospective or current student, what a difference we could make.”
Later in the program, Student Body President Emily Hinton invited more than 150 students from the audience to join her on stage, to support her call for more student voices in campus decision-making positions. Sakaki joined them, accepting a gift bag and embracing some of the students.
The new president introduced her interim team, which includes Dr. Michael Young, interim vice president for student affairs. A former vice chancellor at UC Santa Barbara, he has advocated for student’s mental health needs. Sakaki announced that he will bring back “a more robust, coordinated student- centered Division of Student Affairs,” drawing applause.